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Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

The Affordable Care Act’s fate will still be up for grabs in the courts well after the 2020 election, thanks to a decision last night from a panel of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Driving the news: In a 2-1 ruling, the panel said the ACA’s individual mandate is unconstitutional. But the court declined to say how much of the rest of the law should fall along with it, instead punting that question back to a lower court to reconsider.

The backstory: Judge Reed O’Connor ruled last year that the individual mandate became unconstitutional in 2017, after Congress zeroed out the penalty for being uninsured.

  • He said the entire ACA was bound up with the mandate, and thus the whole law was unconstitutional.
  • Democrats appealed that decision to the 5th Circuit.

After attending the 5th Circuit’s oral arguments in this case over the summer, my sense was that the panel’s two conservative judges very much wanted to rule against the ACA, and that the mandate was probably doomed — but that they were spooked by the full implications of striking down the entire law.

  • That comports pretty well with that they decided last night.
  • The court said O’Connor’s ruling “does not explain with precision” why certain provisions of the ACA couldn’t survive, and instructed him “to employ a finer-toothed comb … and conduct a more searching inquiry.”

Between the lines: In throwing out the entire ACA, O’Connor relied heavily on the way Congress described the mandate in 2010, when it was described as “essential” to many other reforms.

  • But he largely ignored the fact that, in 2017, Congress severed the mandate from the rest of the law. That should be a pretty clear sign that Congress considers it to be severable, the ACA’s allies argue. And the 5th Circuit agreed that O’Connor had given too little weight to more recent history.

The big picture: This case is basically right back where it started. You can assume the mandate is a goner. The real question is about the rest of the law. And it’s working its way toward the Supreme Court.

  • Last night’s ruling simply bought a little extra time, keeping it off the high court’s docket in the middle of an election year.

What’s next: The same three outcomes are on the table: O’Connor could rule that, actually, on second thought, the mandate can fall by itself. Because it’s already not in effect, that wouldn’t have a huge practical impact.

  • Or he could strike down the mandate plus the law’s protections for pre-existing conditions, or come back and strike down the whole thing again.
  • Either of those rulings would reignite a national political firestorm as well as appeals that would likely end at the Supreme Court, sometime in 2021.

Go deeper

Toyota to build $1.3 billion U.S. battery plant in North Carolina

The all-electric Toyota bZ4X, the company's first battery-electric vehicle, at the Los Angeles Auto Show in Los Angeles, California on Nov. 17. Photo: Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images

Toyota announced Monday it's investing $1.3 billion to construct an electric vehicle battery "megasite" near Greensboro, North Carolina, set to open in 2025.

Why it matters: Toyota's Prius hybrid won environmental plaudits when it launched in 1997, but it has since lost ground to electric vehicle world leader Tesla, per Axios' Joann Muller. This battery plant will be the first to produce automotive batteries for Toyota in North America.

2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Congress hunts for shortcut to pass defense funding, debt limit combo

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer returned to his office Monday. Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

The scramble in Congress to pass the National Defense Authorization Act is being complicated by an effort to tie it to a needed hike in the federal debt limit.

Why it matters: The House and Senate are rapidly coming up against a series of deadlines they must address before the end of the year — or risk disrupting crucial military funding and upending the economy. Congressional leaders are now hoping they can knock out both "must-pass" priorities in one, complex swoop.

Scoop: Inside Jake Sullivan's call with U.S. hostages' families

Photo: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA/Bloomberg via Getty Images

National security adviser Jake Sullivan spoke last week with relatives of U.S. hostages and others wrongfully detained abroad, after more than two dozen families expressed frustrations about their inability to get a meeting with him or President Biden, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: Participants on the video call, which began at 7pm ET Friday and lasted more than an hour, told Axios they didn't get satisfactory answers to many of their questions. Nonetheless, they were encouraged by Sullivan's commitment to follow up and pledge to be personally available to them and others going forward.